The senior Congressman from the great state of Alabama stood and sweated a little. “Alabama cast its vote for Mr. Donald Trump of New York,” he said at last.
The honorable Don Young, R-AK, having been elected to his — what? — thirtieth consecutive term last November, drifted away from his desk. He would deliver his vote from the well of the House.
Tomorrow, Barack Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States, would fly out of Washington and be succeeded by — who? Corky Carnavalle, a member of Congress for all of eighteen days, had no idea, and neither did anybody else. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the Democrat nominee, had the most number of popular and electoral votes, but nowhere near a majority. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump — who Corky thought of as a reality-show host — had the least votes, but most of the states were controlled by Republicans in the House, which would pick the next President. And former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who had been a Republican and a Democrat and ran as an Independent, had won Florida and a ton of other states.
Young voted for Trump, and the Clerk went down the line. The first four states would be for Trump, Corky knew.. California would vote for Sanders, but even though California had almost twice as many electoral votes as the first four states combined, it would have one vote, same as any other State, in the House election for President. The Constitution so decreed.
“Caucus” somebody whispered to Corky.
Corky groaned. He had spent the last campaign — which was his first campaign, ever — trying to run away from Trump, the man at the top of his ticket. Fortunately for him, his Democratic opponent had the same problem: he didn’t want to get near Sanders. Bloomberg swept their district, and Corky won by a margin so thin that he didn’t know until the following Thursday that he had been elected to Congress. He knew in his heart that eventually he would have to vote for Sanders or Trump — probably Trump — but he didn’t know how he could explain it to the voters.
He was a Republican. But was Donald Trump? His signature issue was to deport eleven million Mexicans, and then build a trillion-dollar wall across the border between the United States and its southern neighbor. On foreign policy, his platform was to murder the relatives of terrorists. He also wanted to set up a registry for all Moslems in the United States. Internment camps, Corky thought, were not far behind. In his spare time, Corky speculated on a more appropriate party label for the Donald. National Socialist was still available.
Of course, the other side was no better. Sanders, whose dream was to turn the greatest nation in history into another Sweden, had the lunatic idea of reforming Social Security — already near insolvency — by increasing the benefits. Sanders, if left loose on the Treasury, would increase our bondage to our creditors, especially the People’s Republic of China. We would all have to learn to speak Mandarin, Corky concluded.
People didn’t particularly like Bloomberg, a schoolmarmish billionaire whose most remembered accomplishments involved stopping and frisking black people and getting himself elected to a third term after the City Council had set two-term limits on the office. But they stuck with him because they couldn’t stand either of the other candidates. That’s why Bloomberg won Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia…and Florida, Corky realized. That’s why Bloomberg won Florida.
“We have to make a decision,” the State’s senior Republican Representative said. There were twelve Republicans from Florida; the State’s six Democrats sat in a morose cluster, excluded from deliberations. The de facto leader, who would poll from least seniority to most, casting the last vote himself, turned to Corky. “Representative Carnavalle?”
“Bloomberg,” Corky said immediately
The Republican delegation fell out pretty much as Corky expected: six votes for Bloomberg, six votes for Trump. “If you ask those fellas over there,” Allan Hand, who represented the District next to Corky’s, said as he gestured to the Democrats, “I’ll bet you could get a few more Bloomberg votes.”
“Unless they provide us with four Bloomberg votes, Congressman Hand, they are of no value to our deliberations.” The Senior Republican shot Hand a cold look.
“Florida!” the Chief Clerk bellowed.
Corky looked up. The score was now four states for Trump; four for Sanders.
“Florida passes!” Corky wasn’t even sure that a State could pass when the House elected a President. It hadn’t come up that often.
* * *
This hadn’t exactly been the plan for the Honorable Paul Ryan, Republican of Kansas. He had hoped to build a career as the House’s chief budget expert, and use it to help his beloved nation recover from its spending addiction. He thought he had achieved his ambition when he became Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. But then Speaker Boehner’s relationship with the conservatives blew up, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy showed himself — well, less than perfect for the top job. The membership turned to Ryan. They made it clear: it’s you or chaos. And so here he was, Speaker of the House.
He had taken the job for better or worse. Or worst. This was the worst time he could ever imagine: presiding over the first House election of a President since the days of breech cloths and muskets. We had long passed the period when civil public discourse had lost its civility; now it was not even discourse. Instead, it was all screaming and whining and chanting, designed not to convince but to demoralize. The partisan journals — Fox, MSNBC and the like — were bad enough, but the Twitterverse was even worse. He received death threats daily, as did most other members of Congress.
Illinois announced for Sanders, making the vote six to six. God, this has been a dreadful election. First, Trump declared he was leading a revolution. Then, Sanders declared he was leading a revolution. Problem was, there were a lot of people in the United States who didn’t want a revolution. They liked their country, warts and all, just fine.
The other problem is that revolutionaries take no prisoners. Ryan remembered how Ronald Reagan reached out to his nearest competitor, George Bush, to be his running-mate. He wanted to unify the party. But Trump and Sanders didn’t want to unify their parties because they were revolutionaries, not Republicans or Democrats. Sanders’ running-mate was the ultra-liberal Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Trump — no one wanted to run with Trump, and he ended up yoking himself to Cliven Bundy, who once chased Federal Marshals off land he had appropriated for himself with a shotgun, and later speculated that black people were better off when they were slaves.
Ryan looked up. This was a disturbing trend, the Bloomberg States passing. Were they simply waiting for the House to be polled once, so that they could have maximum impact? Or were they genuinely confused?
Iowa passed. Kansas passed. Bloomberg had won both of those. As the senior Kentucky Republican arose to announce his State’s vote for Trump, Ryan turned his attention to a disturbance in the Florida delegation.
* * *
“I am a Republican,” the senior Congressman said. “I take that seriously.”
“So am I,” Corky said. He was conscious of the fact that he was arguing with a man who had been in the House for twenty-four years; six months ago Corky was just some guy who ran a string of computer stores. “I want a Republican President. Unfortunately, the only one running came in last in the popular vote, last in the electoral vote, and lost our State by half a million votes. Harry, he lost your district.”
“Bloomberg is not the answer. I will never vote for a man who will take away our guns. That’s the first step to a police state.”
“I know,” Corky said. “So we nominate a guy who says that Mexicans are rapists, who says that a war hero who sat in a North Vietnamese prison for five years while he was 4-F was a loser, who makes fun of disabled people, who tosses his wives aside when they hit middle age, who says he wants to date his daughter…”
“I get the picture.”
Corky sighed. “I know Bloomberg’s not the answer either. Here’s who is.” He whispered into Harry’s ear.
* * *
It was nine to eight in favor of Sanders, and Michigan’s turn to vote. Michigan had gone to Bloomberg by a slight margin over Sanders, but Ryan expected the Democrats in the delegation to swing the vote to Sanders here.
“Mr. Speaker, Michigan yields to our friends in Florida.”
“Mr. Speaker!” Ryan recognized Allan Hand, the leader of the pro-Bloomberg delegation. Ryan glanced at the senior Republican, who nodded.
“Mr. Speaker, the State of Florida selects the honorable Paul Ryan of Kansas as President. We vote for you, sir!”
Suddenly everything got quiet. “You’re joking,” Ryan blurted. It was not exactly a ruling, but Ryan hoped they would take it as such.
“Mr. Speaker, the State of Kansas selects the honorable Paul Ryan…”
“No! No. No.” It was the only thing he could think to say. Then: “You’re out of order.”
“Mr. Speaker, I move we adjourn.” It was Kevin McCarthy of California, his majority leader, desperately waving his hands and shouting.
“Mr. Speaker, the State of Michigan selects the honorable Paul Ryan.”
“Motion to adjourn takes precedence,” Ryan said. It did, too, under Robert’s Rules of Order, which had some application here. “Adjournmenthasbeenmovedandseconded. Allthoseinfavorsayayeallthoseopposedsaynaytheayeshaveit.” Ryan abruptly banged his gavel and stalked out of the chambers.
* * *
“Can I even be selected?” Ryan asked. “Does the Constitution even permit it?”
Sabrina Ames, a recently Yale-minted lawyer with a PhD in American history, had the Constitution up on her screen.
“Article II, Section 1,” she read. “If there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an Equal number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President, and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the House shall in like manner chuse the President.” She paused. “I think the latter situation applies to you, sir.”
“So: no person having a majority, the House can choose from among the top five. That’s not me.”
“I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried, Mr. Speaker. Sanders had 205 electoral votes, Bloomberg had 162, and Trump had 155. Spots four and five are open. I think it’s at least arguable that the Founders intended the House to have five choices, and if only three candidates got electoral votes, the House could find the other two contenders.”
“What about whoever finished fourth and fifth in the popular vote?” one of the interns asked.
“The original Constitution didn’t contemplate a popular vote,” Ames explained, her voice patient. “Article II, Section 1, is all about the electoral vote.”
McCarthy breezed in, smiling. “Trump says he’s going to sue the House if it selects you,” he said. “Says it’s unconstitutional.”
“We were just talking about that.”
“He says he’s going to sue you personally, too.”
“Isn’t he already suing Cruz for being a Canadian?”
“That too. I knew we were going to get the third branch into this somehow.”
“I think he may be right,” Ryan said. “Although there’s some room for disagreement.” He nodded in the direction of Ames.
On the TV screen overhead, Blaine Cusco was fulminating on CNN. Cusco was a self-appointed spokesman for the Sanders campaign, as he was a self-appointed spokesman for MoveOn.Org, Black Lives Matter (though he was not Black) and the National Organization of Women (though he was not…well, you get the picture).
“In Chile, the Socialist Martyr Salvador Allende won a three-candidate race. He did not have a majority, but he had more votes than anyone else. At least the oligarchs in his country let him lead for a few years before they killed him and established a dictatorship in name as well as in fact. But in this country, in a similar situation, our oligarchs won’t even give Bernie a chance to lead.”
Well, that’s interesting, Ryan thought. He did not imagine that Sanders, who indeed did have the most popular and electoral votes, would relish the comparison to Allende, who was not a socialist but an avowed Marxist and who led Chile’s economy to ruin in a relatively short time. The subsequent military coup installed Pinochet, who restored the economy by setting up a market-based system and killing anyone who was dissatisfied by it. Was that the fate Cusco thought was in store for his candidate?
“Why, Corky, you old rabble-rouser, you,” McCarthy boomed. Ryan looked up to see the freshman Congressman, who he understood had started this mess, advancing on him. He was young — looked barely eligible, conventionally handsome, but turning to fat.
“Mr. Speaker. Mr. Majority Leader.” Carnavalle was clearly nervous.
“Sit down, Congressman,” Ryan said. “Thanks for ruining my life. Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’ll have some vitamin water, if you have it.” Corky appreciated the Speaker’s abstemious, health-conscious practices.
The Speaker reached into a small refrigerator and tossed a plastic bottle to Corky. “Red’s all I got, I’m afraid.” Corky caught it with one hand. “Now, sir, may I ask you what the devil you’re trying to do?”
“I can’t vote for Trump. My constituency would kill me. I obviously can’t vote for Sanders. Bloomberg can’t win and if he won he couldn’t govern. This is probably the most important vote I’ll cast in my Congressional career, however long or short it is. I want to be able to cast it for someone who can be a President of this country.”
“Beg pardon, Mr. Speaker?”
“You study history, Corky? I give you Millard Fillmore. Franklin Pierce. Warren G. Harding. Andrew Johnson. Barack Obama.” He didn’t really believe that the incumbent was as bad as those other monumental failures, but it was a sure-fire applause line in the conference. “We survived those guys, we can survive Donald Trump. Or even Bernie Sanders.”
“After some of those guys, we had a civil war,” Corky pointed out.
Ryan gathered the papers on his desk, shuffled them into a neat pile, and then banged them together decisively. “Well, doesn’t matter. The Constitution limits us to the top five finishers. That’s Bernie, the Donald, and your guy, Bloomberg. That’s it.”
“Well, maybe not, Mr. Speaker.” Corky reached into an inner jacket pocket and withdrew a few papers.
“What’s this,” Ryan said, although he had a sinking feeling he knew what it was.
“It’s a petition, signed by forty-three electors: twenty-three Bloomberg, thirteen Trump, and seven Sanders. They want to change their vote to Paul Ryan. That would make you candidate number four.”
“The election’s over! The electoral college has been discharged!”
McCarthy poked his head into the room. “Just talked to Mitch,” he said.
“What did he say?”
“They got fifty-one lined up for Kasich.” Bloomberg had selected the Ohio Governor as his running-mate — probably his best move of the campaign, winning him most of the Midwest.
Well, that would be all right. Worst-case scenario was that the poor, benighted House could not decide on a candidate and Kasich would have to take over as Acting President once Obama’s term ended tomorrow. It would play hell with the House agenda to continuously have this election hanging over its head, but he could deal with it.
“Fine,” he said. “We’ll reconvene in thirty minutes.”
* * *
“So with gratitude, respect, and, as always, deep affection for this House, it is the ruling of the Chair that any vote for anyone who did not receive an electoral vote on the day the Electoral College met is in violation of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution and is void.” Ryan was finishing up what was, for him, a long speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I implore you. Today is January 19, 2017. It is two o’clock in the afternoon. The nation has been exhausted by this spectacle. We must do our duty. We must elect a President. Alabama.”
“Donald Trump of New York.”
Well, at least they were being concise. “Arizona.”
The first eight states voted as expected, and it was four to four. “Florida,” he said.
Instead of the State’s senior Republican, it was young Carnavalle who popped up. “Florida votes for former Mayor Bloomberg.”
That tore it. Everybody was going to be stubborn, and the House would be in turmoil for months. Tough for acting President Kasich, but John was a clever man, and an experienced one. He’d find a way…
“Move to adjourn! Move to adjourn!” McCarthy was screaming, and then running to the podium.
“What the hell?” Ryan forgot that his mic was on; he swatted it away.
“Get a load of this, Paul.” McCarthy had his iPad out. Kasich was giving a press conference.
“There’s no way in the world I’m going to do this,” he was saying. “I am more than willing to serve this country as President. I am more than willing to serve as Vice-President, and I will do so with whomever the House selects as President. But I am not an acting anything. The Presidency works only if the President can discharge his or her duties freely, and fully.” He seemed to look out directly at Ryan. “A temporary, acting President is a caretaker. I am not in public life to be a caretaker. Members of the House of Representatives, do your job.”
“We’re adjourned,” Ryan croaked.
* * *
He scooted them all out of his office, and then got down on his knees and prayed, something he did often. He believed that God heard his prayers, which was not the same thing as granting them. This afternoon he prayed God to give him the strength to accept whatever way this nightmare played out, and also to help him maintain his sense of humor through it.
Then he opened his door. Sabrina Ames came in, carrying a laptop; McCarthy followed, cell phone in hand.
“My whips talked to everybody. The Bloomberg states are staying with their man.”
“Any movement on the Trump or Sanders side?” McCarthy shook his head. “Could the candidates…” McCarthy’s cell phone jumped in his hand; he turned his back on Ryan and began to speak into it.
“All three candidates have held press conferences over the last hour,” Ames said softly. “Each one of them urged their supporters to stay with them until the bitter end.”
“That was Mitch,” McCarthy announced. “The Senate vote was 48 Kasich, 40 Ellison and 10 abstentions.” Republicans held the Senate, but no thinking Senator would vote for Cliven Bundy.
“But Kasich said he wouldn’t take it. They voted for him anyway?”
“They did,” McCarthy confirmed. “It’s almost as if they wanted a deadlock.”
“But why?” Ryan looked around him. “The Obama Administration ends in twenty-one hours. We’ll have no President to take over!”
“Of course we will, Paul,” McCarthy said.
“The Presidential Succession Act will apply,” Sabrina Ames said, “Mr. President.”
Ryan felt his whole body stiffen. Of course, as Speaker he was third in line to the Presidency. But not like this! “I won’t do it.”
“Well, Orrin Hatch is a nice guy, and very competent,” McCarthy observed gently. Hatch was the President pro tempore of the Senate, and next in line for the Presidency after Ryan. “But he’s eighty-three years old, Mr. President, and I really think we need someone younger in the White House.”
“I will beg. I will implore. I will support Bernie Sanders if I have to. I have small children. And I like them. I don’t want to spend their childhood negotiating trade deals with the Prime Minister of Macao.”
“We’re in the hands of history now,” Kevin McCarthy said. “Let’s go back and see how it plays out.”
Bernie Sanders photograph from Bankrate’s Taxes blog, and was taken by Pete Marovich of Corbis. Mike Bloomberg photograph from the LA Times.com and is from Keith Bedford of EPA. Donald Trump photo by Greg Skidmore via Flicker, appearing in Vice. Paul Ryan photo by Molly Riley of the Associated Press.